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The Power of Diversity: Why equity isn't just a nice-to-have, it's a must-have

Wednesday 8th March

The Power of Diversity: Why equity isn't just a nice-to-have, it's a must-have

New IWD, same old story?

This International Women’s Day, like those before it, is a positive moment; a chance to collectively reflect on the progress and contributions women have made – both at work and in wider society. But it’s also a chance to reflect on how far we’ve still got to go in pursuit of true equity. At first glance, that distance isn’t just sobering – it’s a yawning, gaping chasm. 

That’s not a question of opinion; it’s a question of statistics. According to the World Economic Forum, parity in the gender pay gap is (just) 132 years away. What’s more, the 2021 Women in the Workplace report revealed that 73% of women experience bias at work – yet less than a third of employees recognise bias when they see it. The truth is, we’re still not equipped for true workplace equity. 

But why does that matter? Why should you, men or anyone, care about equity for women at work? And, crucially, is there cause for hope?

Why women matter at work

A report by McKinsey & Company found that companies with more than 30% women on their senior teams are more likely to outperform those with fewer or no female executives. In fact, the most gender-diverse companies outperformed the least by a massive 48%.

In other words, female representation pays. What’s more, gender diversity can contribute to strong company cultures. We’ve found that female candidates tend to be more collaborative in their approach, and more inclusive in their leadership styles. This can support more positive and productive work environments.

Lastly, a study by Accenture found that workplace gender equality is also a “powerful multiplier of innovation and growth” – proving that it’s not just a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have.

Where are we now?

Before we can get where we’re going, it pays to know where we are today. And, as we’ve touched on, the picture isn’t always pretty.

Statistics show that women are underrepresented in leadership positions. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, women make up only one in four C-suite leaders. And, for every 100 men promoted, only 87 women enjoy similar progression. 

The imbalance deepens in certain male-dominated industries, like tech and engineering. In fact, women make up just 14.5% of UK engineers, according to the Women’s Engineering Society. This rises to the heady heights of 23% across the whole of UK STEM (per PWC).

And, if underrepresentation fuels non-participation, it also seems to encourage harassment. Because one third of women will have their careers affected by sexual harassment. Even if we overlook discrimination against pregnant women and mothers (which we shouldn’t), as well as disabled female employees, the picture is still bleak. Taking these into account, you can see why many women are exhausted.

Sadly, that exhaustion is spurring women to leave the workforce in droves – a so-called ‘Great Breakup’. Let’s explore that a bit.

Voting with their feet – the female exodus

Employers today are facing a skills shortage unlike anything we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution. And, against that backdrop, a lack of inclusiveness is driving women away from work. One stark report suggests that one in three women are looking to downshift their careers, or to leave the workplace entirely.

But what exactly is driving the exodus? Three things:

Barriers to progression

There’s no question that many women want to advance. But they often experience microaggressions that undermine their authority, and signal that any progression will need to be hard-won. There are natural biases at play that can put women at the back of the queue for high value work. For example, research shows that, compared to male counterparts, female leaders are twice as likely to be mistaken for someone more junior. 

This leaves ambitious women waging an uphill battle.

Overworked, undervalued

43% of women are burned out, according to recent data – compared to  31% of men in similar positions. This report also found that female leaders do more to support employee well-being, and to foster diversity and inclusion, which in turn dramatically improves retention and employee satisfaction. But this kind of work – and many other similar tasks – are rarely factored into formal reward and recognition frameworks (if these exist at all). 

This workload, without the recognition to match, drives burnout and turns women away from the workplace.

The fight for flexibility

Finally, women want a working culture that finally works for them. Since the pandemic, they’re more likely to leave roles for inclusive companies that understand the importance of flexibility for women – especially working mothers. 49% of women say flexibility is in their top three considerations when deciding whether to join or stay with a company – compared to 34% of men. Another study, by Slack’s Future Forum, puts it at #2.

But the fight for flexibility isn’t just about days in the office. It’s about freedom for women to structure their day how they see fit – escaping the obsession with a 9-to-5 day. Until employers consider a broader definition of flexibility, women will continue to walk.

Showing up as Allies: where do men fit in?

Men can help create a more inclusive work environment by:

  • Speaking out against harassment, discrimination, and microaggressions
  • Seeking to actively promote talented women into leadership positions
  • Educating themselves about the challenges women face
  • Advocating for policies and practices that promote gender inclusion.

Well-meaning men should explore, discuss and confront biases wherever possible – in part because they are safe to do so. Shockingly, new data shows that 32% of Black women who’ve spoken out against bias and discrimination at work experience retaliation, and this compares to just 6% of white men. 

If learning is a great place to start, then where can men or anyone else start learning more to become an ally? We recommend starting with this report on Women in the Workplace, and this discussion with Jenny Garrett OBE on ‘How to be an Actionable Ally’.

Workplace diversity – a new hope?

This IWD, total equity seems a way off for working women. But the good news is that the insight is out there – there’s no longer any excuse to be unaware of gender inequality at work. This is a cause for hope.

Because with education can come a revelation. Today on International Women’s Day, we can look (tentatively) towards a future where everyone sees the value of gender equality at work – and everyone works towards that same shared goal. This isn’t simply a question of women thriving, but entire businesses, industries, and economies. 

Let’s treat it as such. 


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